TORONTO - Maple Leafs defenceman Roman Polak tried but ultimately failed to wrap up Chicago Blackhawks winger Richard Panik on the play that capped off another third-period unravelling for Toronto this season.
"It's a tough situation," Polak said of the incident in question. "We need to handle that though."
Toronto gave up two goals in the final 2 1/2 minutes over the weekend in Chicago, falling 5-4 in a shootout. It was the fourth time in five games that the club entered the third period with a lead only to see it slip away. All three games on last week's road trip ended with third-period collapses.
"It's frustrating," veteran centre Tyler Bozak said. "You still should win every time you have the lead in the third."
NHL clubs rarely lose when they enter the final period with a lead. Toronto, for that matter, was the league's worst team last season and still went 17-1-4 when they had a lead after two periods. So far this year that mark stands at an unsavoury 1-1-3, the Leafs have actually led after 40 minutes in all five games this season, winning only once.
"Of course it needs to change a little bit because we're losing the games because of that," Polak said.
The Leafs had a 4-2 lead and looked fine for the first 17 minutes of Saturday's third period before it came quickly undone.
Brian Campbell got things going for Chicago, speeding wide left into the Toronto zone before firing a shot (more of a pass really) at the pads of goaltender Frederik Andersen. Artem Anisimov outmanoeuvred Morgan Rielly, the Leafs 22-year-old No. 1 defenceman, for control of the puck, cutting the Leafs lead to one.
Babcock was bothered that Anisimov escaped the grasps of not only Rielly but Nazem Kadri, the other Leaf in the area.
"That makes no sense to me," he said. "If the puck goes through (the) goalies that's their responsibility, but if (the opposition is) shooting it into empty six-by-fours that's your responsibility as a team."
It was exactly one minute later that Panik, a former Leaf, grabbed a point shot rebound and beat Andersen for the game-tying goal. Toronto was outnumbered around the net, with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa also looming, a mistake Babcock felt led to the regrettable end result.
"There's no excuse for that," Polak said, "for the puck just to hang in there in the middle. We need to clear it, but it happens."
The Leafs were overzealous, too, well before the goal, Bozak and rookie Mitch Marner both trying to escape the zone early for a potential empty-net marker. The Blackhawks instead kept the puck in and eventually tied the score.
Bozak said the Leafs, among the NHL's youngest teams, needed to "learn how to win", by which meant learning to play confidently with the lead.
"When we're up we can't sit back, we've got to act like it's tied and keep playing the same way we have," Bozak said. "It seems like late in the game we're playing in our end the whole time and the rest of the game we're playing in theirs. It's just weird how it happens."
It's easy to pin the Leafs third-period woes entirely on the roster's youth, but as Babcock pointed out it was actually the mistakes of veterans that led to the latest defeat. The disappearance of a 4-1 lead in Winnipeg, however, can rightly be chalked up to the team's youthful composition.
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What's most alarmed Babcock thus far is the sheer number of goals — he called it the "red flag" — his team has allowed: three or more in four of the five games. He was quick to defend Andersen after practice Monday for the meltdown against Chicago, pointing to mistakes made by the team as opposed to those of the 27-year-old new Leafs No. 1.
Andersen has inarguably struggled though, surrendering four goals or more in three of his four starts as a Leaf.
Beyond the two-goal lead in Chicago that slipped away as well as the three-goal margin in Winnipeg that ended in defeat, Toronto also had a 4-3 lead in Ottawa and 2-1 lead in Minnesota, both of which ended in losses.
How to handle future scenarios?
"Just go win the period," Polak said. "Don't slow down. Don't defend the game. Don't defend the score. Just go out there and play to score another goal."
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